November 2008

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Keeping Linux Safe Since 1994 is my latest at Linux Journal. It’s fun with Typeanalyzer. Try it on your blog, and see what it says. Don’t be surprised if the results are different than those for yourself.

Back in September or so I blogged in favor of the $700 billion stimulus package. In those days, now so long ago, I thought, against my otherwise better judgement, that we needed to do something.

Now I don’t.

Now I think we need to let the train wreck finish happening before we “stimulate” anything. If we even bother at all.

I say that for two reasons.

First is that nobody knows wtf to do, really. If we do anything.

Second is that “doing something” is overrated. For that insight I thank this excellent piece in the Washington Post, by Shankar Vedantam. And to Russ Nelson for pointing to it.

The gist:

  The action bias, or the desire to do something rather than nothing when you have just been through a terrible experience, plays a powerful role in our lives. It influences individuals and companies, investors and leaders. You can see the action bias on display in current thinking on the housing and economic crises, in the bitter debates over the war in Iraq — even in discussions about how to fix a football team that’s a perennial loser.
  When people suffer losses and confront the possibility of even greater reverses — it doesn’t matter if you are talking about a terrorist attack or a meltdown in retirement savings — it is psychologically difficult to do nothing, to hold course. This is true even when the action you contemplate produces an outcome that leaves you demonstrably worse than you were in the first place...
  When things are going well, there is a tendency to stagnate, rather than innovate and make things even better. When things are going poorly, on the other hand, our bias is to flail.

We’re flailing, and we’re doing it with trillions of non-existent dollars. Spending them risks making them even more worthless than they already are.

What if every product category, every business, is a bubble — and some just last longer?

We know the newspaper business was a bubble. It lasted over a century, but here we are, at the end of it. Papers will still be around, for the same reason that railroads and mainframe computers are still around. But they’ll never be what they were in their golden decades.

Television will follow. That golden age is coming to an end as well. Same with radio. These will also persist, in somewhat different forms. But the golden age is over.

I’m thinking now that we’re seeing the same thing with cars.

A few days ago I took in my old Volkswagen Passat to get the water pump replaced. Turns out lots of other stuff was worn out or broken and needed fixing too. The final bill came to around $5000, which is what I paid for the thing three years ago.

For a minute I thought about getting a new car. They’re cheaper than ever, with lots of good deals, and guarantees that would relieve me of the need to pay much for upkeep. But I decided to fix the old car instead, becuase it’s good enough. Spending $5k is better than spending $20k, especially if I don’t have to borrow the difference.

The mechanic told me his business is booming. Most car owners have awakened to the fact that cars are cars, and most of what we do with them is just drive from place to place. New cars purchases are impelled mostly by advertising and fantasy. Drive a lot of rental cars and you get hip to the obvious: the differences between cars, especially fairly new ones, isn’t large. After a few years they all plateau at a certain level of partial suckage and stay that way for the duration. You forget the quiet cabin and tight handling that turned you on in the first place. You care less about its color than just being able to find it in the parking lot. You know the noise in the heater is some rocks your kid put down the vents and won’t ever get fixed.

Now, what happens if an absence of new car fantasy prevails for the duration? What if the whole automobile business has jumped the shark, and the problem isn’t just Detroit’s?

Even if it hasn’t now, the business will falter eventually. They all do. Disruptions happen. Trees do not grow to the sky. That’s Nature’s nature, in business as well as the wilderness.

Bonus link.

A pause this Thanksgiving weekend to appreciate The Word Detective, which has been around forever, which is to say since 1995.

I remember The Word Dectective from way back in the Early Daze, when there were relatively few websites (say, 103 or 104, 5 or 6 of them) and it was already obvious, to their few million visitors, that The Net was not only going to change everything, but was a worldwide virtual environment that would change the existing physical one even as it changed itself.

I re-discovered The Word Detective this morning when I wanted to find the source of the saying “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. I looked it up on Google and found that The Word Detective had the closest approach to a canonical result, way back on 23 May 2001.

Being an online periodical of sorts, TWD is now produced on WordPress (View Source tells me), which is way cool, because it has always been, essentially, a bloggy kinda thing. It has a sideblog as well.

Check ’em out. If your interests run in an etymological direction, the TWDs are worthy of bookmarks (remember those?) or better.


EOLcat is a palindrome.


Ze says this blogger is 12. His hedge, which I second: I will say that if this is some weird viral H&M marketing scheme, I will be very angry.

Obituaries on hold

Shel Holtz lists all the techs whose reported deaths are still exaggerated. Hat tip to Zane Safrit.

Nice validation

Of The Open Source Force Behind the Obama Campaign, Joe Trippi writes,

  I’ve never read a more accurate explanation of how the Linux movement and Open Source influenced and formed the foundational thinking for the political movement that, now, has helped produce Barack Obama’s Victory.

The amazing thing about crashes is that you can see them coming. They’re not surprises like earthquakes or meteor impacts. A sure sign of their approach is too much speculative lending, which contributes to the boom that sets up the bust. We saw it in housing in the 70s and 80s, which led to the S&L crisis, and again in the 00s. We’ve seen it over and over in tech, most famously with the dot-com crash.

Now we’re about to see the U.S. government crash, for the same reason.

According to Bloomberg (which ought to know),

  The U.S. government is prepared to provide more than $7.76 trillion on behalf of American taxpayers after guaranteeing $306 billion of Citigroup Inc. debt yesterday. The pledges, amounting to half the value of everything produced in the nation last year, are intended to rescue the financial system after the credit markets seized up 15 months ago.
  The unprecedented pledge of funds includes $3.18 trillion already tapped by financial institutions in the biggest response to an economic emergency since the New Deal of the 1930s, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The commitment dwarfs the plan approved by lawmakers, the Treasury Department’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. Federal Reserve lending last week was 1,900 times the weekly average for the three years before the crisis.

That’s trillion. With a tr.

Our debtors won’t be able to pay most of it back. Nor do we expect it to be.

And we can’t pay it back, unless we print all the money we need, or do the electronic equivalent.

Which will turn the dollar into the peso. Or worse.

What comes after that — or even during that — I hate to think about.

Or so it seems to me, on a cold Wednesday morning. Hope I’m wrong.

Meanwhile I would like to see more transparency than we’ve seen so far. Lack of it is the other story in the Bloomberg piece. Scary reading.

Hat tip to Dave for the pointer.

…that remain hidden from public view.” That’s just one phrase just uttered by , author of and speaker at lunch here at the Berkman Center.

The talk, which is a debate/q&a, is going on now (12:44pm), and being . Strong stuff. Many of the bloggers he’s talking about are in jail or worse. From the lunch brief:

  In 2007, Australian journalist, author and blogger Antony Loewenstein traveled to Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China to investigate how the net was challenging authoritarian regimes, the role of Western multinationals such as Google in the assistance of web filtering and how misinformed we are in the West towards states considered “enemies” or “allies”.

His subject is what may be “partly true in the west, but not true in the rest of the world.” Such as the “death” or “mainstreaming” of blogging. Which remains no less revolutionary than ever. Learn how. Tune in.

What Antony just read to the group will be posted on this afternoon.

We have an IRC at #berkman on freenode. If you’re watching and want to participate, jump on.

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